The Harvard Law Professor and faculty dean representing Harvey Weinstein in his sexual assault trial sent a lengthy email to Harvard students on Friday defending the idea of representing people deemed to be “guilty, unpopular, vile or undesirable.”
“It is particularly important for this category of unpopular defendant to receive the same process as everyone else – perhaps even more important,” wrote Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., the faculty dean of Winthrop House, one of Harvard’s 12 undergraduate houses.
“To the degree we deny unpopular defendants basic due process rights we cease to be the country we imagine ourselves to be. In fact, most of the due process rights we hold dearest derive from lawyers who represented unpopular defendants.”
The email to students came on the same day that Sullivan and attorney Jose Baez formally joined Weinstein’s defense team for his high-profile assault trial.
Sullivan and Baez previously teamed up to defend former NFL star Aaron Hernandez during his trial for double murder. Hernandez, who was already serving a life sentence for a separate murder, was acquitted of the double murder, but killed himself in prison days afterward. Sullivan also represented the family of Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri.
But the decision to represent the man infamous for launching the #MeToo movement is particularly fraught on Harvard’s campus, where sexual assault and harassment remains a major issue.
Just in the past year, Harvard’s head diving coach resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct, and a university government professor announced his retirement amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
Kenard Dillon, a junior at Harvard, said he was “taken aback” and “very upset” when he learned about Sullivan’s decision to defend Weinstein even as the school grapples with issues of sexual violence.
“I think what made me upset about it is that this kind of continues the idea that faculty in the classroom and in our residential community, it gives the idea that they aren’t taking sexual violence seriously,” he said.
“I understand his job is a criminal defense attorney, but also his job is faculty dean of Winthrop House.”
‘The truth will come out in trial’
In his email to undergraduates and resident tutors at Harvard’s Winthrop House, Sullivan pointed to his past career as a public defender and as an advocate for criminal justice reform. Through that work, he has secured the release of more wrongfully incarcerated people – more than 6,000 – than anyone in US history, according to a biography on Harvard’s website.
“For two decades now, I have represented the criminally accused. It would be immoral not to do so because one of them is unpopular or judged by the media or the public to be guilty. The truth will come out in trial; indeed, that is what trials are for,” Sullivan wrote.
Sullivan connected that past work releasing the wrongfully imprisoned with his current representation.
“The reason there have been so many wrongfully convicted people has everything to do with trial courts rushing to judgment in cases involving defendants who everybody hated, who everybody presumed to be guilty,” he wrote.
“These sorts of conclusions, without serious adherence to the criminal process, (have) led to the people’s liberty being wrongly snatched away. But, more importantly, the US criminal process teaches us that the system only works if we defend those whom we perceive as guilty, as vigorously as those whom we perceive to be innocent.”
He also pointed out that some of our most basic protections, such as the right to remain silent, come from zealous criminal defense.
“It is through the representation of unpopular defendants who were convicted of doing very bad things that our most basic due process rights are vindicated,” Sullivan wrote.
Sullivan wrote that he plans to hold open office hours on Monday and Tuesday night to further discuss the issue.
Dillon told CNN that he noticed Sullivan has been making the rounds at the Winthrop House dining hall in the past few days, going table to table to talk to students about their concerns.
Testing the presumption of innocence
The arguments in Sullivan’s email track closely with what Baez said outside of court last week after agreeing to take on Weinstein’s case.
“I think this case is testing the presumption of innocence in our country,” Baez said.
“And you have a man who needs to stand trial for these specific acts, and he should be entitled to the same presumption as anyone else, and whenever you have a frontal assault like that, I think it’s important, for not only the members of our judiciary, but as all of us who work in the justice system and in the press who cover it, to constantly enforce and reinforce and maintain that presumption of innocence, because it’s a threat to us all.”
Harvey Weinstein is accused of raping a woman in a New York hotel room in 2013 and forcibly performing oral sex on another woman at his Manhattan apartment in 2006.
He faces five felony charges: two counts of predatory sexual assault, one count of criminal sexual act in the first degree and one count each of first-degree rape and third-degree rape. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
“Mr. Weinstein steadfastly maintains his innocence in this matter and we are looking forward to assisting Mr. Weinstein in his defense,” Sullivan said in a statement obtained by CNN last week.
CNN’s Elizabeth Joseph contributed to this report.